Tuesday, March 5, 2024

NC, FEMA advance programs to address flood risk properties in Pender County

The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency has worked on strategic buyouts of flood-prone areas in Pender County. (Courtesy of Pender County)

PENDER COUNTY — Five hurricanes of varying intensity hit fast-growing, flood-prone Pender County from 2016 to 2022, leading federal and state programs to target its most vulnerable areas with flood mitigation services.

On Nov. 20, the board of commissioners unanimously approved two different programs for flood relief. They amended the county’s cooperative agreement with the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, enabling the targeted buyout of two flood-prone properties and they passed a memorandum of understanding agreement with North Carolina Emergency Management for the elevation of three homes through a FEMA grant.

In August 2019, FEMA provided $4.9 million in funding for the county’s buyout of 25 flood-prone properties in Hampstead, Rocky Point, Currie, and Burgaw to transform them into natural floodplain areas. According to the county’s 2022 flood mitigation report, Pender executed nearly 30 property acquisitions for flood mitigation from 2016 — when Hurricane Mathew hit the NC coast — to July 2022. 

The commissioners approved a second flood-related buyout program with NCORR in May. The buyout established two disaster risk reduction areas that have endured past flooding and are anticipated to experience future flooding; one is near Burgaw in the Whitestocking area, along River Birch and Bear Run roads, and another is in Currie along Canetuck Road. 

At the May 1 commissioners meeting, Chairwoman Jackie Newton asked NCORR director of mitigation Maggie Battaglin how the two programs interact. 

“We look at the data, we look at where the other program is operational to see if there is an opportunity for us to layer on top of what they are doing,” Battaglin said. 

She said the NCORR buyout program was more targeted and she’d worked closely with county staff to identify particularly flood prone areas.

The Nov. 20 amendment with NCORR includes the strategic buyout of two parcels that were previously not part of the disaster risk reduction area. They are located on HWY 210 near the Bladen County line. The first parcel is approximately a half acre worth $21,500. The second parcel is not listed on Pender’s geographic information system.

The federal Housing and Urban Development department (HUD) — which has funded the NCORR strategic buyout program with $123,103,334  — designated Pender as one of the “most impacted and distressed” counties in the state, a requirement for the program. 

PCD reached out to the county and NCORR for details on the breakdown of strategic buyout spending, as well as total acreage of disaster risk reduction areas; no one responded by press.. At the May commissioner meeting, Battaglin said HUD grant funding covered every aspect of the strategic buyout process, including demolition and other processes to convert the site into a natural floodplain state.

Pender is a predominantly flat county prone to flooding on the Atlantic coast and inland waterways such as the northeast Cape Fear River and Moores, Beckys, and Holly Shelter creeks. Risk Factor, an online tool created by nonprofit First Street Foundation to calculate climate change risk, estimates 13,263 properties — or 33% of Pender County properties — have a greater than 26% chance of being severely affected by flooding in the next 30 years.

Coastal regions including Hampstead and Surf City have suffered significant flooding in recent years. Rocky Point — located near Harrison Creek, which flooded heavily during Hurricane Florence in 2018 — was identified as particularly vulnerable in a recent UNCW study.

Governor Roy Cooper established NCORR in 2018 to “lead the state’s efforts in rebuilding smarter and stronger” after Hurricane Florence that year. The office is part of the Department of Public Safety.

Beyond the strategic buyout program, NCORR focuses on reconstruction of damaged homes, community development, and housing stability for homeless people. 

The office’s reconstruction arm has come under controversy; applicants for home reconstruction and legislators in the General Assembly have heavily criticized the program for failing to build sufficient housing. Chief program delivery officer Ivan Duncan resigned after intense scrutiny in November 2022.

It has received nearly a billion dollars from HUD in two grant types, Community Development Block Grant – Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) and Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds. 

The strategic buyout program uses CDBG-MIT grants. State licensed appraisers determine the market value of the property before making an offer to the property owner. The program is voluntary and there are no penalties if homeowners do not want to sell their property to the county.

At the Nov. 20 meeting, Newton asked for specifics on how the NCORR buyout program functions and expressed concern it would lower county property tax income.

“That permanently takes that property out of our tax rolls,” she said. “Is there a limitation? Does it have to have a home on it? Is there a restriction on the amount of acres that can be bought out, or is it the home plus acreage or the home and the site it sits on?” 

Battaglin responded the organization’s eligibility criteria is broad. She said they favor residences but also consider vacant land. If a property is over 5 acres the organization consults with the local government to ensure they are not excessively burdening the local tax base.

Cooperation with NCORR to identify homes in flood prone areas is one of Pender’s 34 flood mitigation strategies; another requires FEMA elevation certificates for new developments within the Special Flood Hazard Area.

At last Monday’s meeting, the board of commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding with North Carolina Emergency Management for the elevation of three properties to meet this regulation. The agreement will allow NCEM to implement $426,681 in FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds to elevate the homes.

Planning director Daniel Adams said the elevation will not cost Pender County anything as FEMA is providing the entirety of the funds.

Two of the properties are located on NC HWY 210 in Currie and one is located on Thankful Road in Rocky Point. The structures will be elevated in accordance with county ordinances to base flood elevation with two feet of floor board.

Adams said the elevation of these three homes is associated with Hurricane Dorian in 2019; NCEM reviewed Pender residents’ applications who did not receive funding for Florence and moved some of them to other FEMA projects.

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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